For transgender people in Hollywood, this has been a year of new heights and too-familiar pitfalls: “Pose” brought better representation than any show before, but “Rub and Tug” brought criticism of Scarlett Johansson’s attempt to play a trans man.
“Rub and Tug” — which is in limbo after Johansson’s exit — has a cis male director in Rupert Sanders. “Pose” has enlisted not just trans stars, but also trans writers and directors. Together, they went beyond the trite stereotype that trans people live sad, tragic lives.
Case in point (and “Pose” spoilers follow): Two key characters, Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and Pray Tell (Billy Porter), learn they are HIV positive. But what ensues goes beyond the normal, tired tropes.
“Most things that we see on TV and in movies, when someone finds out they’re HIV positive it’s the end, but for Blanca and Pray Tell, it’s really the beginning,” said “Pose” writer Our Lady J in an interview with TheWrap. “That was my experience, and so I feel closer to those two characters for that reason.”
Our Lady J was a classical pianist whose first writing credit was on Amazon’s “Transparent,” which broke ground with its nuanced, compelling portrayals of trans characters. She knows firsthand that an HIV diagnosis isn’t the end, because she has been HIV positive for 15 years.
“I think if people who are in charge of creating films and TV shows, whatever their title may be, want to create and tell authentic, real transgender stories with multi-dimensional transgender characters, they need to collaborate with trans people from the very beginning of their process,” said Nick Adams, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s director of Transgender Media and Representation.
While film is a director’s medium, TV is the writer’s domain. Showrunners are typically the lead writers on a show.
“It all starts on the page, especially with television,” author Janet Mock, who made her directorial debut with the sixth episode of “Pose,” told TheWrap. “We have to ensure that those telling the story are actually representative of the community that are being put on screen.”
“Pose” focuses on the friendships and rivalries centered on balls where competitors adopt different personas, from royalty to Wall Street businessman to weather forecaster. Mock and Our Lady J weave in buoyant, universal themes of “chosen families” and finding love.
The connection between storyteller and subject extends not only to fictional characters but also to depictions of real people.
T Cooper, who has written for television shows including Netflix’s “The Get Down,” recently directed a documentary titled “Man Made” about trans men competing in the world’s only trans bodybuilding competition. He didn’t see his subjects as an outsider might.
“My approach to these lives, it wasn’t even an approach, because there wasn’t work that I needed to do to try to understand,” Cooper told TheWrap. “My eyes are as clear as they can possibly be. I’m not trying to learn something that I don’t know intrinsically. I can’t explain it in any other way than just that it feels like there’s this huddle and I’m in the middle of it. I’m not on the outside trying to jump in.”
Cooper said he wanted to show many different facets of the trans male experience, because trans men aren’t depicted very frequently onscreen and when they are, they are typically relegated to side characters or “throw-away joke lines.” While many trans stories focus on violence or transitioning, his documentary is meant to be, for the most part, hopeful and triumphant.
“I don’t think we have to tell stories that are tragic in order for folks to care about trans stories and trans lives,” he said.
Until “Transparent,” Our Lady J said, transgender characters were either “victimized” or “pathologized.” She said the stereotypical “sad transsexual” or “deceptive transexual” characters are rooted in misogyny. She cited 1992’s “The Crying Game,” written and directed by Neil Jordan, a cisgender man, as a film that depicts a trans woman tricking a straight man.
“There have been so many false narratives about the trans experience written into the public consciousness, that anyone who has not interrogated those false narratives are going to continue recycling those narratives in their work,” Our Lady J said.
While many stories focus on the difficulty of transitioning, Our Lady J said that her own transition brought joy.
“‘Pose’ is actually the first thing to fully realize this — that transitioning is something that allows us to live freely, not live sadly,” she said. “We don’t transition and then feel bad about our transition the rest of our lives. Of course, there are many many obstacles that we have to overcome, and I’m speaking broadly, obviously. I’m not speaking for everyone. But the feeling I felt after my transition was ‘Oh my God, I’m free.'”
Mock stressed the economic importance of casting trans talent. Trans people had a 15 percent unemployment rate in 2015, three times the rate of the general population, according to the most recent U.S. Transgender Survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, which polled almost 28,000 respondents.
“Pose” will be the first Hollywood credit for many trans people. Background actors who have shown up for ball scenes have earned speaking roles and gained membership in the Screen Actors Guild. Mock has scored more directing projects.
“I hope that we will be an example for other productions to realize that it’s not just enough for people who don’t belong in those communities to tell those stories and to put marginalized people on screen,” Mock said. “But we also have to empower those communities by economically investing in them and giving them jobs and giving them the pen.”
Our Lady J said showrunners are responsible for ensuring diversity. Jill Soloway, the creator of “Transparent,” first inducted her into the writers room, and hired trans talent in other departments as well.
Our Lady J, whose musical career has included collaborations with artists such as Sia and Lady Gaga, sent in a short story to Soloway when the showrunner held an open call for submissions from trans people. Soloway then selected Our Lady J to participate in a screenwriting workshop, which led to a job.
For a while, Our Lady J said, she was the only trans person to work in a TV writers’ room. She strived to include voices from her friends and others in the trans community.
“I’m grateful for that responsibility, because it made me step up my game for sure, but at the same time, there’s no way I could cover every base of every trans experience,” she said. “It was really impossible to put all of that onto one show and then to put all of that onto one writer as well.”
For “Pose,”co-creator Ryan Murphy hired multiple trans writers, as well as director Silas Howard, a trans man who now serves as an executive producer on the show.
When Howard released his first film portraying trans and gender non-conforming people, 2002’s “By Hook or By Crook,” he and c0-director Harry Dodge hoped a guide the film provided to critics would help them understand the characters. Still, some reviews mislabelled them as lesbians or “women with facial hair.”
“Basically people were like, ‘Well are straight people gonna watch this movie?’ That was the legitimate question and we were like, ‘I watch French movies I’m not French, I watch ‘Jaws’ and I’m not a shark,'” Howard told TheWrap. “You can watch movies about other things and connect if they’re interesting.”
The film screened at Sundance, but it took a grassroots approach to fund it and eventually get it made, he said. Howard and Dodge relied on their friends to finance the film, making it a “completely homegrown” project, Howard said.
“Now I go into classes where they teach it and it’s amazing to hear students deconstruct the film and put all this meaning to things that we filmed, a lot of times, because we had no budget at all,” he said.
Howard spoke about a recent interview he had with a reporter in which he used terms such as “trans” and “butch.” He felt “incredible” watching the reporter jot them down verbatim, without questioning them.
Trans creators still face plenty of barriers. Despite a star-studded cast that included Jim Parsons and Octavia Spencer, Howard said his 2018 film “A Kid Like Jake,” about a “gender-expansive” child, was very difficult to finance.
Despite a 97 percent rating on “Rotten Tomatoes,” “Pose” has scored unremarkable ratings — though FX has renewed it for a second season.
GLAAD and 5050by2020, an initiative of Time’s Up, penned an open letter to Hollywood urging networks to be more inclusive of trans talent and writers. “We believe that when trans people are empowered to help culture makers tell our authentic stories, it will improve how we are treated in the real world,” the letter says.
Our Lady J plans to be one of the decision makers bringing more honest and complete stories to the screen. She’s currently working on a pilot about growing up trans in an rural, Amish community, the subject of the short story she first submitted to Soloway.
“I think that it’s most definitely up to the showrunners, and I plan on taking up that torch as well when I’m a showrunner.”